England risks becoming a “brown and unpleasant” land if new reservoirs are not built, the water industry has warned.
England’s water companies have struggled for decades to get water storage built, with industry insiders saying that Nimbyism has been a particular bane.
Projects of regional and national significance were being held up by “small groups of very vocal locals” who didn’t represent public or local opinion, an industry source told i.
Without more drought resilience, water companies are likely to rely more heavily on abstraction from rivers and lakes. About 1 in 10 rivers and a third of groundwater bodies are under ecological stress from abstraction, according to government figures, with the majority destined for drinking water or industry.
The last major reservoir in England was completed in 1991. The water industry has plans for seven new reservoirs, and seven other major projects including transfer pipelines, totalling £14bn in investment, but most are still early in the planning process.
Stuart Colville, director of policy at Water UK, the industry body, toldi that the effects of climate change were already here and that without this investment England faced an “unpleasant future”.
“We need to stop talking about climate change as a future problem because all of our data… all of the trends are way off where they historically would be.”
If a “sizeable number” of the 14 schemes were blocked, said Mr Colville, there would be significant impacts on the public and nature.
“By the time our children are adults, we’ll start to see some severe impacts on the economy. That is likely to include tighter restrictions on activities like irrigation, which could turn England into a brown and unpleasant land, as opposed to how we see it. Potentially you could also see restrictions on house building and day-to-day life in the south of England.”
During drought periods, water companies often rely on abstracting more water from rivers than would otherwise be permitted under environmental rules. Water UK said that those practices would end if all its projects go ahead.
The National Infrastructure Commission (NIC) is already warning of a one in four chance of a severe drought by 2050, which would involve severe restrictions on households, farmers and industry as well as harming nature. Last summer, it called for 30 new reservoirs across the UK.
“Severe drought is really quite unpleasant,” said Mr Colville, “it will involve households, as well as industry, agriculture and others. And also it will mean that the environment keeps on getting battered”.
Mark Lloyd, chief executive of the Rivers Trust, said reservoirs had an important role to play in protecting rivers, although he called for a focus on far smaller on-farm reservoirs which could be built quickly, as well as a “catchment system” approach looking at all aspects of rivers.
Mr Colville said there had been two major barriers to infrastructure projects in the past, the planning system and the Environment Agency (EA), which had previously blocked reservoirs.
Sir James Bevan, the outgoing head of the EA has subsequently shifted that stance and last year called for more reservoirs, warning that England was facing the “jaws of death” on water shortages.
Ministers have promised to bring forward proposals this spring to accelerate the planning process for key infrastructure, but at present, it remains a painfully slow process involving years of public consultation, assessments and multiple levels of approval before construction can begin.
Plans by Thames Water for a reservoir near Abingdon in Oxfordshire were first proposed in 1996 and rejected twice, most recently in 2010 when the Environment Secretary blocked the proposals on the advice of the planning inspector.
The latest proposals are currently under public consultation, but Oxfordshire County Council has opposed them, calling the reservoir “destructive” and the local district council has also come out against them.
Derek Stork, the chairman of the Group Against Reservoir Development (Gard), which has been opposing the plans for three decades, toldi that there was no need for the reservoir and that other projects such as water transfers and reducing leaks could more than makeup for the deficit.
“It is not necessary. That’s the very first thing. The 2010 public inquiry which we had on this confirmed that it wasn’t necessary and it still isn’t necessary.”
Gard claims that the reservoir poses a flooding risk to the local towns, while residents are concerned about disruption from construction, a loss of farmland and biodiversity, and the visual impact.
Thames Water toldi that the reservoir would in fact reduce flood risk and said it was working closely with local communities on the proposals. The company said it was “critical to act now to secure our water supplies for the future”.
The routes available for opponents to block reservoirs are myriad. In 2015, Bristol Water had plans for a second reservoir in Cheddar rejected by the Competition and Markets Authority over plans to place the cost on customer bills.
Currently, schemes can be considered for designation as a Nationally Significant Infrastructure Project, but this remains a lengthy and uncertain project. In announcing plans to reform NSIP, ministers pointed to increasing delays and successful legal challenges against projects.
Critics have questioned why ratepayers should foot the bill for new infrastructure when water companies are yet to get on top of leaks, which are still at about 2.5 billion litres a day.
Mr Colville said companies were pushing hard to tackle leaks, bringing them down by half since privatisation with a target of halving them again.
“At privatisation, leakage was outrageously high. We were losing 5 billion litres of water a day… so we’ve made some progress and we’ll make some progress again”.
However, even with all leaks eliminated from the system, Mr Colville pointed out, the NIC forecasts that England would still be short of 2 billion litres of water a day.